On Wednesday, May 2nd, the Ponderosa Stomp staged its triumphant return to New Orleans. This renowned roots-music festival, held in exile in Memphis in 2006, was distilled to just one night at the House of Blues, which is located on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. I arrived in time to catch one of the first acts of the evening, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, songwriter/soul singer Ralph Soul Jackson, storm through a set of rarities that left the DJs and record collectors in the audience smiling with glee and stayed until the wee hours of the morning, after Augie Meyers and a swingin' Texas band served up the Doug Sahm classic "She's About a Mover."
In between, I witnessed a staggering array of legendary performers, all-star musicians, and oft-overlooked composers and songwriters who, together, comprised the most audacious roster in Stomp history.
"Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman" songwriter Dan Penn, a fixture at Memphis' American Recording Studio in the late 1960s, played two stripped-down sets on acoustic guitar, accompanied by keyboardist Bobby Emmons. The effect was dazzling, and it left the audience — which included a rapt Bobby Patterson, who recorded at American with Penn so long ago — primed for another acoustic set featuring bluesmen Kenny Brown and Bobby Rush.
Equally astonishing was the hour-and-a-half-plus performance staged by Wardell Quezergue and his New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Revue, a 14-man band handpicked by the blind arranger, known as the key architect of the city's famed in-the-pocket groove sound. Star after star took the spotlight, including trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, who sang "The Monkey" and "Who Drank My Beer While I Was in the Rear"; Robert Parker, who crooned "Barefootin'"; and Jean Knight, whose song "Mr. Big Stuff" was a huge hit for Stax.
Rockabilly singer Jay Chevalier, blues pianist Henry Gray, Lazy Lester (the Stomp's signature performer), and vocalists Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and Rockie Charles made multiple appearances inside the House of Blues and on its more intimate outdoor patio stage, while indoors, backing groups such as Lil' Buck Sinegal & the Top Cats and Deke Dickerson & the Eccofonics worked overtime with front men who ran the gamut — from Little Jimmy Scott, Ernie Vincent, and Dennis Coffey to Joe Clay, Matt Lucas, and Willie Tee. Also lurking onstage: Alex Chilton, who wielded a guitar with the Memphis-meets-New Orleans group the Early Times.
Most of the 1,500 people who packed the House of Blues were waiting for the midnight hour, when reclusive psych star Roky Erickson took over the main stage with his band The Explosives for a mind-numbing, ear-shattering set that included musical firepower like "You're Gonna Miss Me," "Starry Eyes," and "I Walked with a Zombie." It was well worth the wait, although fellow Texan Roy Head threatened to upstage Erickson with his propulsive, over-the-top set, which included two show-stopping renditions of "Treat Her Right" and choreography that would put a stripper to shame.
Judging by his face-splitting grin, Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, the anesthesiologist/music fan who, when May rolls around, trades in his doctor's coat for a fez, realized that the sixth annual Ponderosa Stomp — his baby — was a raging success before the final stragglers wandered back onto Decatur Street. Alternately describing various acts as "unbelievable," "perfect," and "killer," Padnos, who was heard on NPR earlier in the week highlighting the efforts of his nonprofit Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, preferred to let the music speak for itself.
"I think every New Orleans musician who was off tonight showed up," he finally said, nodding to people such as pianists Allen Toussaint and Jon Cleary, who joined the massive throng paying homage to Quezergue. Also spotted in the crowd: producer/performer Ben Vaughn and Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of indie-rockers Yo La Tengo.
Reflecting on the Ponderosa Stomp's Big Easy homecoming, Padnos said, "We loved coming to Memphis last year. It was a unique experience. Hurricane Katrina gave us a chance to stage the Stomp in one of the greatest American music cities. But being able to pull it off at home is pretty special, too."
That said, Padnos didn't rule out the Mystic Knights' return to Memphis. "We would like to do something there next fall," he mused. "It could be a big festival or a smaller show — just what, I don't know yet."
For more info about the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau and the Ponderosa Stomp, go to PonderosaStomp.com.